Book-based games can enthuse even reluctant readers.
Diana Hinds meets an ex-teacher determined to bring them back.
Games, one might think, have always been an integral part of the primary classroom, in terms of helping children to learn. But for many teachers, the tick-boxes of the national curriculum and the prescribed timetables of the literacy and numeracy hours have put paid to creativity and play. Where is a hard-pressed teacher to find the time, let alone the energy, to invent, make and try out their own classroom games?
Helen Bromley, a former infant teacher turned literacy consultant, is a devotee of games based on the books children read. She believes they have a vital role to play in drawing children into the reading process, particularly with reluctant readers. Her book, Book-based Reading Games (published by the Centre for Language in Primary Education, pound;8.50), offers a host of practical ideas for introducing - or reintroducing - literacy games into their classrooms.
There are, Helen Bromley thinks, good and bad games. Her own first games with reception children were not good models: these comprised boards with key words written on them which children covered, bingo-style, with flash- cards when they had decoded them.
But this type of game, she realised, did nothing to help children actually learn to read. "They either knew the word or they didn't," she says - and the children who didn't soon lost interest in playing because they never won. "The games were totally decontextualised, and there were hardly any opportunities for children to develop useful reading strategies."
Then a headteacher showed her a game based on Jill Murphy's book Five Minutes' Peace. This bingo-type game incorporated illustrations of the characters and phrases from the book, which the children had to match with their cards. The children loved it and Helen Bromley was hooked. "I just kept doing it. On Sunday evenings, while I was watching London's Burning, I'd be cutting and sticking, and when I went into school on Mondays, the children would say 'What's this week's game, miss?'" Ideas for new games based on quality texts came thick and fast, and she began to add props in the shape of soft toys or models. Even now Helen Bromley remembers the satisfaction she felt when it first occurred to her to put words on a large dice (for instance, names of the six toys pulled from Kipper's Toybox in Mick Inkpen's story).
The children play the game when they know the story after hearing it read aloud. They are then drawn into re-enacting and retelling the story for themselves; this reinforces the language of the book, very often with the result that children want to go back to the text with a growing sense of themselves as "readers".
With young children, the games help to develop the beginnings of a sight vocabulary. A teacher can draw their attention to phonic elements, such as initial letters, and rhyming word endings. With older children, games can be devised to reinforce ideas and vocabulary that are more complex. A top selling point, particularly for reluctant readers, is that winning depends on luck.
"Children who might be less confident with a book can do better in a game - the pressure is off, and they're having fun," saysHelen Bromley. "What is exciting for the teacher is that sometimes you can watch children learning something in the course of just one game."
Four-year-old Josie, for instance, at her nursery school in east London, is playing a bingo game with Helen and three other children, based on Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell (see box). The children know the book well, and enjoy having an animal toy to hold that matches the animal on their board. Josie begins the game pointing from right to left as she chants the words on her board; by the end of the game, after left to right pointing has been modelled for her by Helen and by other children, she too has absorbed the idea that we read words from left to right, and is pointing enthusiastically and correctly.
Such games make for a lively literacy hour, lending support to text, sentence and word level work. Word-bingo and track games (made from stories involving a journey) suit small groups which, once they've learnt the game, can play unsupervised and teach it to others. Some dice games, such as Kipper's Toybox, can be played by the whole class.
Helen Bromley's book deals mainly with texts and games for infants, but many of the ideas can be extended to juniors. Rosemary Smith, English co-ordinator at Sir James Barrie primary in Wandsworth, south London, uses games throughout the school and finds them useful for children with English as a second language. As well as developing reading, the games help all the children learn turn-taking and co-operation, she says. "And that initiates conversation, too - which is what many of our inner-city children really need."
Book-based games are neither difficult nor expensive to make. What they do take is time - but Helen Bromley suggests involving classroom assistants and parents, as well as getting the children to draw the pictures.
"I've worked with every type of teacher on these games, and the beauty is that every one can see something in it for them, something that appeals to their teaching style."
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WORD BINGO: DEAR ZOO BY ROD CAMPBELL
The story is about a series of animals who have to be returned to the zoo because they are unsuitable as pets.
Its strongly tuned repetitive phrases lend themselves well to word bingo.
How to make it: 1. Draw a picture of each animal on an A4sheet of card.
2. Draw a grid over the animal that divides the card into eight boxes.
3. Write an eight-word sentence for the animal - one word in each box (for example, "He was grumpy so I sent him back.") 4. Write the sentence again on another A4 sheet grid, with one word in each box, cut out and laminate the individual word cards.
5. If possible, collect soft toys or models so that all players have their own animals to hold.
How to play: 1. Each child chooses a board and matching toy.
2. An adult (or more experienced reader) reads through the sentences on their boards with them.
3. The teacher holds up each individual word card in turn and hands it to the first child who can match it to a word on his or her board (for example, by pointing).
4. Play continues until every child's board is complete.